The Overlooked Factors in Police Abuse Cases

Cops take most of the blame, often deservedly, but the single-minded media furor of the last year has let other bad actors off the hook

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know

by Malcom Gladwell

Seven years ago this past weekend, on July 17, 2014, a Staten Island man named Eric Garner was killed by police in a gruesome scene that went viral and helped launch the Black Lives Matter movement. Press reports usually say Garner was stopped on suspicion of selling cigarettes by plainclothes officers who then choked him to death, but the story I wrote about in I Can’t Breathe was both stupider and more tragic than that. Garner’s death was a confluence of a hundred terrible developments, but above all a grotesque governance failure. It was a classic example of how even the most harmless-sounding ideas can, in the hands of the wrong people, become deadly policy.

Garner’s death was accelerated by policing strategies based on the “Broken Windows” theory. Often attributed to famed Stanford researcher Philip Zimbardo, the theory’s origins really go back to 1963, when criminologist George Kelling took a job running a home for troubled youth in Lino Lakes, Minnesota. Before Kelling’s arrival, Freud-inspired clinicians at the 64-bed facility stressed observing rather than correcting the emotionally disturbed minors in their care. If a resident broke a light bulb, for instance, they would leave broken glass on the floor and just keep taking notes.

Kelling, a former parole officer, ordered staff to clean up the glass. After this and some other changes, violent incidents in the facility declined. He made the same observation most parents understand implicitly, that turning visual noise down and setting clear boundaries lowers anxiety and discourages acting out.

Nearly twenty years later, Kelling and James Q. Wilson co-authored an influential article in the Atlantic called “Broken Windows,” whose central argument was far more ambitious. Kelling and Wilson believed allowing visible signs of disorder in public invited crime. Reformers from there began encouraging a shift in emphasis from reactive policing of criminal violations to affirmative promotion of the more nebulous concept of “order,” which at first meant tackling graffiti, public drunkenness, jaywalking, and, yes, broken glass.

By 2014, police had begun to define a poorly dressed, 350-pound black man like Garner standing on a street corner as a species of visible public “disorder.” Kelling in 2015 told me he was aware as far back as 1982 that this might happen. He’d spent time with cops in South Boston, whose “idea of ‘maintaining order’ was keeping the black people out,’” he said. “So I knew that was a potential problem.”

Kelling is mentioned in Talking to Strangers, a carefully provocative 2019 book on policing by pop-wisdom king Malcom Gladwell, which I read on the anniversary of Garner’s death. It begins by recounting the infamous July, 2015 encounter between Texas traffic officer Brian Encinia and an African-American woman named Sandra Bland. Stopped for the preposterous reason that she’d failed to signal before changing lanes to accommodate the accelerating Encinia, Bland ended up being jailed after the traffic stop turned hostile. Three days later, she killed herself in custody in an incident that may have been the most disturbing of all the police misconduct cases that galvanized America during those last years of the Obama presidency.

Gladwell, who couldn’t have known he was releasing a book a year before the death of George Floyd would once again make police brutality the defining issue in American society, referred to the time between the summers of 2014 and 2015 as a “strange interlude.” Even just a few years ago, it seemed strange when America actually paid close attention to police abuse cases. Gladwell notes that the period that began with the the deaths of people like Garner and Michael Brown and ended roughly with the suicide of Bland was “when a civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, was born.”

Of course, “we put aside these controversies after a decent interval and moved on to other things.” In the introduction Gladwell announces, “I don’t want to move on to other things,” and frames Talking to Strangers as “an attempt to understand what really happened by the side of the highway that day in rural Texas.”

The English-Canadian Gladwell may be the most bankable writer in the American publishing market. The #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list is as much his home as the Super Bowl is for Tom Brady. There’s an intellectual drive-thru quality to his approach, which takes an idea and draws it out in bite-size chapters built around familiar pop culture episodes. He does this again in Talking to Strangers, a book about police brutality that somehow contains chapters about Amanda Knox, Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, and the TV show Friends. Gladwell makes it capital-E Easy for the medicine of thought to go down, a talent I once grumbled at, almost surely out of jealousy. I now see it’s a blessing in the United States, a country where a fair portion of the mass audience is capable of losing at tic-tac-toe.

An attempt to take on grim problems of race and violence, Talking to Strangers has more of an edge to it than Blink, “the power of thinking without thinking,” or Outliers, “the story of success.” This book about all the different ways in which strangers misunderstand one another feels like it was written as a way to nudge an increasingly polarized country to consider how things might look from another’s perspective. When he tells the story of the meeting of Montezuma and Cortes, an epic example of mixed signals that leads to one of the bloodiest wars in history, it’s hard not to feel like it’s a metaphor for Trump’s America, two camps of people in different worlds talking past one another. In particular, though, Talking to Strangers speaks to our increasingly dangerous habit of governing according to the panicked impulses of the population.

For years now, the national conversation about policing has been dominated by emotional mob reactions to pebble-bits of information on social media or snippets of video that we debate ragefully and at length, often without even a pretense of trying to learn the underlying context first. Gladwell seems to want to get underneath those reactions, and ends up laying out why knee-jerk takes often don’t work with this issue, beginning with a crucial, oft-overlooked problem that leads to many policing catastrophes: people suck a lot worse than they think at judging people they don’t know.

Gladwell’s point seems to be that if you ask police to stop millions of cars and pedestrians, and instruct them to look for pretexts to conduct searches of all of them, police will override their “default to truth” and begin to see threats in innocent people everywhere. He’s trying to be understanding about scenes like the Encinia video, by asking readers to look at the policy context underneath that car stop.

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